Storytelling—A Beginning Glossary



During the past few years, as I have read and written about storytelling, I have indexed a number of words or phrases that are important and definitive for the subject.  This collection is a starting point that organizes some of those terms.  In most cases I have applied them to storytelling, but I do not claim that my attempt is more than a beginning reference guide.


Accent—a particular way of speaking in a story to give the listener some idea of a character’s background, especially in reference to his/her language, e.g. ‘Irish accent’ (See also dialect).

Allegoresis—mental process by which we understand that something we hear or read calls into mind something from another work (Rabkin 2007).

Allegory—a kind of story where people and places are used figuratively to represent literal items, e.g. ‘seed’ for the ‘Word of God’.

Alliteration—the repetition of the beginning sounds of words.

American myth—archetypical story where an in-group (typically a social institution) is threatened by an out-group (men, no law and survival skills, e.g. the American west and the frontier) (Rabkin 2007).

Analogy—when similar traits between two different objects or events in a story are compared, e.g. ‘innumerable people’ compared with the ‘sands of the sea’.

Animal tale—“Supernatural, marvelous, or moral feats are represented as within the capability of man through his own superior cleverness or by sheer good luck. There is no higher power involved or needed” (Powlison and Peckham 1997).

Anthology—“a collection of stories by different authors” (Henry 1995:13).

Antonym—a word that is opposite in meaning from another, e.g. ‘large’ vs. ‘small’.

Aphorism—a concise statement of a principle or truth (similar to an adage, which is often metaphorical).

Archetype—a universal category in a story that includes generic and idealized concepts or experiences that occur in life; it provides a pattern throughout the story, or set of stories, e.g. hunger, thirst, death, forces of nature, plants, animals, buildings, food, are archetypes.

Argument—framing a story or part of it in such a way that participants try to convince each other of their particular point of view.

Attitude—how the speaker or hearer agrees or disagrees with any part of the story.

Author—the person telling or writing a story.

Autobiography—a written account of one’s own story.

Background or Grounding—information that lies outside of the story itself, but which is necessary for interpreting the meaning of the story. (See also Setting).

Ballad—a song or poem that tells a story.

Biography—a story about a particular person.

Caricature—humorous or satirical exaggeration of some aspects of a person.

Chanting—a word or group of words is a story repeated over and over, often in poetic form.

Character—a person in a story or literary work.

Cliché—repetition of a word or phrase resulting in the loss of its original meaning.

Climax—high point of a story, usually near the end.

Coherence—the relationships between sentences in a story that link their meanings.

Comedy—a story that ends happily.

Communication act—the exchange of ideas or information between a speaker and the hearers in a story.

Communication—components include genre, topic, purpose or function, setting, participants, message form, message content, act sequence, rules for interaction, and norms of interpretation (Saville-Troike, 1982).

Communicative competence—the total set of knowledge and skills that speakers bring to a situation (Saville-Troike, 1982:23). These include: linguistic knowledge (verbal, nonverbal, patterns, variants and their meaning according to situation), Interaction skills (perception, selection and interpretation, norms, strategies), cultural knowledge (social structure, values and attitudes, cognitive map/schema, enculturation processes).

Communicative function—includes categories that are expressive (feelings), directive (requests or demands), poetic (aesthetic), phatic (empathy and solidarity), and metalinguistic (references to language itself).

Concept—the general idea or meaning that a story or part of it forms in a person’s mind.

Connotation—the emotional attitudes that someone has about a particular word or phrase.

Convention—widespread acceptance of some form or function.

Couplet—a pair of words that rhyme in sentences in a verse.

Creative—expressing a story in such a way that it evokes emotion and feeling in the hearers.

Culture myth—include accounts of a culture hero and mythical explanations of culture traits.

Culture—the set of beliefs, habits and attitudes that are expressed by people in a story.

Cycle—a series of events repeated in a story, e.g. the familiar one, two, three times that an event happens in a story.

Dance—culturally prescribed movements that express excitement and happiness in a story; people usually dance in twos, fours and groups.

Debate—in a story, people who express opposing points of view.

Denotation—the central or core meaning of a word in a story.

Dénouement—the part that comes after the climax, the resolution to the story.

Dialect—the particular variety of speech represented in a story, e.g. a ‘Southern dialect’.

Dialogue—conversation between characters in a story.

Diegesis—conversation between characters in a story as reported by the narrator.

Direct speech—what a person in a story is reported as actually saying.

Discourse—a general term for a story; it usually teaches or explains something. Finnegan (1992:14) says it is used as an umbrella to cover all forms of verbal communication in a particular society.

Domain—an area of the culture or society where a particular variety of speech is used, e.g. the ‘rap culture domain’ of a story.

Double-entendre—a word or expression that can be understood in two different ways.

Drama—a story acted out by characters.

Dramatis personae—the cast of characters in a story.

Elements—includes how people express ideas, the dimensions of verbal expression, the interpretation of researchers, separating verbal from other communication forms, divorcing oral texts from writing, and developing a vocabulary to deal with these issues (Finnegan 1992).

Emic—a story that is domestic, mono-cultural, structurally derived, relative, contrastive in reference to a system, and discovered by the analyst. (See Pike 1967a:37-40 for discussion and amplification.)

Empathize—being able to imagine or share the feelings of someone in the story.

Epic—a long, narrative poem that forms a story, with the emphasis on the heroic.

Epigram—short and often humorous statement that is presented as a general truth.

Episode—dramatized incident in a story without any break in it.

Episodic plot—tying a story’s scenes and events together in a simple chronology.

Essay—a short story on one subject that shows the author’s point of view.

Ethnography—a descriptive study of a particular group of people, often written in story form.

Ethnosemantics—folk descriptions of what things mean and how they are related.

Etic—a story that is alien, cross-cultural, and classified in advance by a typological grid.  It is somewhat absolute, often measurable, and created by the outsider as analyst. (See Pike 1967a:37-40 for discussion)

Euphemism—a word that sounds nice and takes the place of one that doesn’t.

Exposition—summary details that provide background information for the story.

Fable—a brief story that teaches a moral or lesson; it often involves animals that talk.

Fairy tale/story—generally ancient make-belief stories that embody a lesson; often elves, fairies, dwarfs and leprechauns appear in the story.  “The supernatural, marvelous, and moral are treated as belonging to a make-believe or fantasy world. May be used either to reinforce or undermine moral values according to manner or presentation” (Powlison and Peckham 1997).

False memories—something that did not happen, but which has been referred to and reinforced so often that the person ‘remembers’ that he/she took part in it and makes a story about it.

Farce—bizarre happenings that are also comical.

Feedback—any information from the hearer that signals an understanding or misunderstanding about the story; commonly facial expressions are used.

Figures (of speech)—semantic categories of non-literal meanings, such as simile, metaphor, metonymy, that are used for special effects in a story.

Flashback—information that happened before the story began.

Flashforward—information revealing an event that has not yet happened in the story.

Folklife—includes stories that employ dimensions from a number of fields: verbal art, unwritten traditions, and folklifes.

Folklore—includes  manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs, and so on from past traditions (Bauman 1992:29).  Oring (1986:18) considers folklore an ‘orientation’ that includes what is communal, common, informal, marginal, personal, traditional, aesthetic, and ideological

Foreshadowing—to represent or prefigure something before it happens in a story, e.g. introducing a character or object that will play a prominent part in the story at a later time.

Formal speech—when the speaker is careful to give ‘accepted’ or ‘educational’ pronunciation and grammar.

Frames—in a story a group of actions in which one event, action, or actor is (potentially) substituted.

Gambit—when a speaker uses a word or phrase to signal an opinion, e.g. ‘From my point of view…’

Genre—speech types that a community considers as the same; generally genre refer to literary categories, such as romance, history, western, detective, and so on. There are basic or generic categories, but various sub-types as well (such as humor, ritual, urban legend, insult, gossip, argument, each defined on the basis function and performance).

Gossip—informal stories about other people that includes their private affairs.

Heuristic—using a story as a teaching procedure so that the hearer will personally discover something.

Humorous tale—“The supernatural, marvelous, moral socially proper, etc., are held up to ridicule or disparaged in a humorous way; or social political, religious, verbal ambiguities, or patently improbable or impossible doings are reported for their entertainment or shock value” (Powlison and Peckham 1997).

Icon—a replica, such as a painting or picture, that has a special meaning in the story.

Idiom—a group of words that when used together have a different meaning than each of them separately.

Image—any object in a story that the teller or hearer can picture from their experiences and that usually evokes an emotional response.

Imagination—an aesthetic experience that allows the speaker or hearer to believe that something is happening, even if they are not physically experiencing it

Implication—the relationship between two or more items in a story, e.g. introducing a giant implies strength.

Inner speech—speech for oneself, that is within one’s own mind.

Insult—saying something or doing something that deliberately offends someone.

Interlocutors—the people who are actually involved in conversation in the story.

Irony—discrepancy between what really is going on and what should be going on.

Jargon—a special contrived language used by a particular group.

Jump tale—a story with an unexpected ending that makes the hearer “jump” or be afraid.

Lampoon—a deliberate and humorous attack on a famous person or story.

Language—the system of structured human communication, e.g. the English language.

Legend—embodies aspects of history, with presumed cultural heroes and genealogies traditionally passed down, in the same way as myths; (It is often difficult for an outsider to distinguish between a myth and a legend.) “The supernatural is acknowledged and credited with specific unusual happenings related to a specific person or locality. It explains or validates some person, place, or object, or cautions about or expresses premonition of danger, death, other-worldly spirits, teaching the danger of the numinous” (Powlison and Peckham 1997).

Lesson plan—the list of objectives that a teacher has and the activities and materials necessary to achieve them.

Lexical field—an organized set of words and expression, e.g. the set of kinship terms used in a story.

Lexicon—the words of a language, as contrasted to the grammar of a language.

Limerick—humorous five line verse.

Literate—the ability to read and write in a language.

Lyric—a story, such as a psalm, hymn, or song used for special occasions.

Malapropism—the accidental but humorous substitution of one word for a similar sounding one, e.g. prostate for prostrate.

Maxim—a general, common sense statement that is proverbial in nature. (See Proverb.)

Memorize—the conscious process of committing a story to memory; rote memory, i.e. repeating verbatim, is one common method.

Memory—the capacity to think about or recall something that happened in a past story; memory is often referred to as ‘short term’ and ‘long term’.

Metaphor—an implied comparison, e.g. an animal with recognized bad habits compared to those of a particular person.

Metonymy—a figure in which a part of something stands for the whole, e.g. the ‘head’ to represent someone who is in charge of everyone else.

Mimesis—when the narrator adds something to the verbal part of the story to help the hearer captivate the emotions of the act and be convinced of its reality.

Mnemonic system—a cultural way of remembering, such as visual, rote, or using objects.

Monologue—one character giving a long speech.

Morality tale—“ To uphold or teach ethics and morality in conjunction with or apart from a religious base or belief in the supernatural”(Powlison and Peckham 1997).

Motif—a particular theme or pattern that is repeated throughout a story, for example, conflict and resolution, reversal (rags to riches), heroic (and often fictional) people, battle stories, and love stories.

Myth—incorporates cultural viewpoints and ideology into a story and gives an interpretation to the nature of both, often making a division between the so-called natural and supernatural world.  Myths may be essentially true stories that reveal archetypes found in folklore and other types of stories.  “The supernatural is acknowledged and credited with the origin (in a bygone era) of the cosmos as it was in a former state or as it is now. It is explanatory, validational, and often instructional in religious values” (Powlison and Peckham 1997).

Mythological epochs—refer to specific ages, e.g.: “Golden Age”, “Age of the gods”, “Age of animals” (Powlison and Peckham 1997)

Narrative medicine— insiders who use stories as healing agents.

Narrative—a story that is an account of some event or experience. (See story.)

Narrator—the person who relates a story, not necessarily his/her own.

Novella—a story with a compact or pointed plot.

Numskull tale—“ A group or groups assumed by the performer and/or audience to be of lower status than themselves [and] is depicted as responding irrationally to a variety of circumstances. The purpose is to put down the other group by innuendo and slur” (Powlison and Peckham 1997)

Oral history—a collection of memories and personal stories, usually gained through recorded answers to specific questions, following accepted standards. “Memory is the core of oral history, from which meaning can be extracted and preserved” (Ritchie 2003:19) .

Oral literature—includes proverbs, sayings, riddles, stories, myths, fables, plays, songs, prayers, homilies, sermons, personal testimonies, dreams and cultural symbols. According to Finnegan (1992), it emphasizes the literary or artistic aspect, allows for creativity and allows differentiation within a culture and with other cultures. It has parallels with literature, provides a comparative term, but carries its own insights and problems.

Oral poetry—poetry that is known and recited as a story, but has never been written down.

Orality—the study and function of spoken language.

Oxymoron—when two words or phrases seem to contradict each other (e.g. “military intelligence”).

Parable—a kind of story that teaches by means of hidden meanings, often spoken in religious contexts.

Paraphrase—expressing a particular word or phrase using other words or phrases while retaining the same meaning.

Parody—a story whose style is created as a deliberate imitation of another well-known style.

Performance criticism— a new method of biblical criticism that analyzes the performance event as the site of interpretation, including the dynamics of performance, the influence of place and circumstance, and the experience of an audience. It includes historical criticism, narrative criticism, reader-response criticism, rhetorical criticism, orality criticism, social science criticism, speech-act theory, discourse analysis, and ideological criticism. (Rhoads)

Performance—(a) rhetorical and aesthetic techniques of delivery, as well as audience and implies a rejection of the counter-term ‘text’ (Finnegan 1992); (b) telling a story before an audience using their acquired knowledge about the subject.

Periphrasis—rhetorical term that refers to a roundabout way of speaking.

Personification—granting non-humans the ability to speak and think.

Phenomenology—philosophical approach representing intensional acts of the consciousness, i.e. focusing on some particular aspect of a story.

Plot—the way a story is planned or developed.

Poetic justice—where virtue is rewarded and vice or wrong doing is punished.

Poetics— historical tales and stories that composers arrange by using “unusual” phonological (e.g. chanting) and semantic features.

Poetry—language that typically uses patterns of meter and rhyme in a story.  Some kinds are: ballad, elegy (sorrowful, mournful), epic, lyric, ode, and sonnet.

Polemic—a story with controversial overtones.

Politeness—using appropriate cultural manners, such as social or physical distance, when telling a story.

Polysemy—a word that has two or more meanings, e.g. ‘head’ of a person and ‘head’ of the class.

Pragmatic—the contextual, non textual, aspects of a story, i.e. how the setting and context helps define the meaning of the story.

Presupposition—what the speaker assumes that the hearer already knows about the story.

Prominence—the most important or featured idea or character in a story.

Propositions—statements or declarations that are assumed to be true.

Prose—ordinary writing in a story.

Proverb—a short cultural saying about something in one’s experience; it is easily remembered and important.

Proxemics—the physical distance between people during a story.

Pun—a humorous substitution of words.

Recitation—retelling a story that has been committed to memory.

Register—a variety of speech used by a particular group of people with the same interests, e.g. the speech used among missionaries.

Rhetoric—a story or talk that impresses people because of the fine words and expressions used; generally refers to written style.

Rhyme—similarity in sounds between words.

Riddle—a short but mystifying question posed as a problem to solve.

Ritual—a series of actions that people regularly carried out; often in a religious story or setting.

Role—the part taken by a person in a story, e.g. teacher, trickster, etc.

Satire—an element of exaggerated humor in a story to point out someone’s foolishness or bad character.

Schema—the setting of a story and its episodes, i.e. the events that take place in a coherent fashion. (See also Script.)

Scripts—a set of meaningful actions that is regularly repeated by the actor(s) in a story.

Semantics—systems of meaning for lexical and grammatical items that are based on patterns and context.

Setting—the time and place in which the story takes place.

Simile—the same as metaphor, but with literal comparative words, such as ‘like’ or ‘as’ are added.

Speech act—utterances that are understood based on either their literal or propositional (locutionary) meaning or those understood by means of the effect they have on the hearer (illocutionary force).

Stereotype—a fixed set of characteristics that people believe represent someone else or some other group.

Stories—not everything is a story, but a common set of attributes lead Haven (2007:79-80) to this definition: “A detailed, character-based narration of a character’s struggles to overcome obstacles and reach an important goal”. Haven claims that dictionary definitions of story and plot are virtually the same because we “have no other word than story for the subcategories of story” (p. 19). Words such as tale, fable, parable, legend, epic and so on, are a generic type of speech with many subtypes, depending on their social function and emic meanings.  Stories may be myths or legends, proverbs and riddles, and within these subtypes other kinds occur, such as hidden speech, secrets, insults, speech acts, and so on.  These same sub-types can occur within other genres, including songs and plays.

Storyteller—the person who relates or tells the story.

Storytelling—“By ‘storytelling,’ I mean simply the telling of anecdotes, happenings, the events of a person’s life” (Rosenbluth 1990:6-7).

Structure—“The general framework into which the plot of a work [story] is organized” (Henry 1995:280).

Style—the variation that a speaker gives to a person in a story, e.g. casual or formal are two types. (See also Register.)

Symbol—an object or name that is used to stand for something else.

Synonym—a word that has nearly the same meaning as another, e.g. ‘lie’ and ‘fabricate’.

Syntax—how words combine in sentences.

Tale—a story that usually involves some kind of adventure.

Tall tale—an exaggerated story that is about extraordinary things.

Taxonomy—classification of items into groups, sets, classes, or sub-varieties of them. A taxonomy of speech types might include lectures, sermons, debates, and so on.

Text—a divisible part of spoken or written language. (See also Discourse)

Theme—the main idea or subject in a story.

Theopoetic—the interplay of Biblical or Bible-based language with poetry. (Wilder, 2001.)

Topic—the part of a story that names the main person or idea that is discussed.

Totemic myth—explaining the origins of a clan or another group of people with a story that traces them  back to a certain plant or animal.

Tragedy—a story where the main character meets with disaster.

Trickster tale—a traditional story that has a trickster as the main character, e.g. Brer Rabbit. “Supernatural, marvelous, or obscene feats presented as the activities of culture heroes, transformers, or tricksters for the purpose of explaining the facts of life as they are and showing the consequences of intelligent, immoral, or irrational behavior” (Powlison and Peckham 1997).

Trope—a classical and fundamental distinction for figures of speech that involves embellishment in stories.

Type scene—an elaborate set of tacit agreements between the teller and the audience about the story(Alter 1981)

Type—a character who represents a particular social class in a story.

Urban legend—a unsubstantiated belief that becomes a story and is passed along among people.

Verbal art—includes folktales, myths, legends, proverbs, riddles, even songs and poems, as well as tongue twisters. Sometimes the term folklore includes these as well. (Finnegan 1992)

Verse—using language in a way that is different than ordinary speech.

Work song—a genre of folk song associated with manual labor.

Worldview—influenced by the past and present levels of culture, including surface and core features, which intersect to provide our belief system. However, “We must realize that ultimately meaning in our lives is found not in an understanding of our human structures, but in human stories,” (Hiebert 2008:31).


Alter, Robert. 1981. The art of Biblical narrative. NY: Basic Books.

Bauman, Richard, ed. 1992. Folklore, cultural performances, and popular entertainments: A communications-centered handbook. NY: Oxford University Press.

Collins Cobuild Essential English Dictionary. 1988. London and Glasgow: Collins.

Finnegan, Ruth. 1992. Oral traditions and the verbal arts: A guide to research practices. London: Routledge. [ASA Research Methods in Social Anthropology].

Greene, Ellin. 1996. Storytelling: art and technique, 3rd edition. New Providence, NJ: A Reed Reference Publishing Company.

Haven, Kendall. 2007. Story proof: the science behid the startling power of story. Westport, CN: Libraries Unlimited.

Henry, Laurie. 1995. The fiction dictionary. Cincinnati, OH: Story Press.

Hiebert, Paul G. 2008. Transforming worldviews: an anthropological understanding of how people change. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Hirsch, E.D. Jr. 1987. Cultural literacy: What every American needs to know. NY: Vintage Books.

Hirsch, E.D. Jr., Kett, Joseph F. and James Trefil. 1988. The dictionary of cultural literacy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Murdock, George P., et al. 1987. [5th revised edition] Outline of cultural materials.  New Haven, Conn.: HRAF.

Oring, Elliott, ed. 1986. Folk groups and folklore genres: an introduction. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press.

Pickering, David. 1999. The Cassell dictionary of folklore. London: Cassell.

Powlison, Paul and Lloyd Peckham. 1997. Oral literature analysis workbook. SIL Indonesia. [For private use only, used by permission of Joyce Sterner.]

Rabkin, Eric S. 2007. Masterpieces of the imaginative mind: literatures most fantastic works. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company.

Richards, Jack, John Platt and Heidi Weber. 1985. Longman dictionary of applied linguistics. Essex, England; Longman Group Ltd.

Rhoads, David. “Performance Criticism: An Emerging Methodology in Biblical Studies.”

Rosenbluth, Vera. 1990. Keeping family stories alive: a creative guide in taping your family life & love. Point Roberts, WA: Hartley & Marks, Publishers.

Ryken, Leland, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, General eds. 1998. Dictionary of Biblical imagery: an encyclopedic exploration of the images, symbols, motifs, metaphors, figures of speech and literary patterns of the Bible.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Saville-Troike, Muriel. 1982. The ethnography of communication: An introduction. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Sloane, Thomas O. ed. in Chief, 2001. Encyclopedia of rhetoric. Oxford University Press.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th edition. 2001. Foster City, CA: IDG Books Worldwide, Inc.

Wilder, Amos Niven. 2001 [1976]. Theopoetic: Theology and the religious imagination. Lima, OH: Academic Renewal Press.

Web resources:

A glossary of literary terms by Robert Harris (version 1-4-02, accessed 8-11-08), see:

Miscellaneous links by Robert Harris (version 6-30-04, accessed 8-11-08), see:

[Karl J. Franklin Draft, May 2009]